Sébastien Desclée: What is Aotearoa’s plan to balance out the brain drain?


The excitement of our borders opening up for much-needed tourism can’t hide the concerning reality of the exodus facing Aotearoa after two years of the border closure.

Firstly, we have the kids strapping on a backpack and heading into the great unknown: numerous twenty-somethings are leaving, or planning to leave, our shores temporarily for their long-awaited OEs. This rite of passage is often an important part of a Kiwi’s development as they discover more diversity, live different personal and professional experiences and (hopefully) return home with a fresh, broad perspective, enriching the existing workforce and bridging talent gaps.

Secondly, and of more concern, are the large numbers of workers who have immigrated to Aotearoa over the past 15 years on the promise of a better life. As a result of the cost of living explosion over the past few years, making it impossible to save money or buy a decent home for their families, many of these immigrants are considering returning to their countries of birth, or moving to Australia, where the cost of living and salaries seem more attractive.

These two things combined will inevitably badly impact our economy, affect Aotearoa’s social pyramid and will require our attention.

Similarities abound between our “brain drain” and a brand losing market share. When a company’s market share is threatened, steps are taken to understand the drivers causing the erosion, the measures that can be taken in the short term, and which long-term action can help restore, and indeed, enlarge, the customer base.

This is also a time to revise the company’s brand proposal, values, barrier to trial or loyalty driver gaps, point of difference and point of excellence. These things will be defined by deeply engaging with existing and lost consumers, together with prospective audiences. This is also a good time to look at other brands who have been facing similar issues.

Back to Aotearoa’s current and ongoing brain drain. It’s time to address the reasons people are leaving for good, creating measures to ensure we have compelling and diverse immigration policies in place, ensuring we balance out the drain with gain. We have something of a natural head start in terms of environment, education, innovation and good old Kiwi hospitality – but none of that means much if the cost of living is prohibitive for new New Zealanders. It is my belief that a large proportion of people leaving these shores do so reluctantly but with little option if they wish to enjoy an economically sustainable quality of life.

So, what to do to avoid a lemming-like exodus? OE’s aside, we urgently need to gain a deeper understanding of the motivators for people to leave – an exit interview, if you will. Then we can better understand what motivators we might put in place to help them stay. What will attract more people to come – and stay – Down Under?

As I write this, millions of people around the world and especially in Europe are living as refugees with very few prospects. Welcoming some of these people would not only enrich our population and position Aotearoa as open to others’ needs, but would be highly beneficial to us socially and economically. How can we reach out to them, compel them to join us, using well targeted subsidies to help make the move affordable and accessible? It would be timely to consider transforming our MIQ hotels for this purpose.

In the mid-term, what measures could we put in place to encourage more freshly graduated students from abroad coming to live here, joining our flourishing businesses or becoming tomorrow’s entrepreneurs? How can we attract Computer Scientists, Social & Health Workers, Artists, Teachers? And whilst we ponder that question, we need to understand how we can ensure accommodation and general living is accessible for all.

What educational programmes can we put in place to transform and help some of our unemployed to get a job in business or industries in need?

Are there countries that have been going through similar challenges, from whom we can learn some lessons?

The 2023 General Election may mean that these questions are unlikely to be addressed by our politicians. Could some public / private partnerships and groups come together to reflect on this pressing issue and generate ideas?

None of these questions are easy to answer. Solving them will require a lot of effort, creativity and courage from all of us. But wouldn’t it be nice if this millions-strong team could devote the same energy and determination we put into closing ourselves to the world to opening us up to more immigration, moving us progressively forward?

From “Drain” to “Gain”. It has a nice ring to it.

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